On one side you have the arcane (albeit often fascinating) geekery most dramatically typified by the “somm” community. And one must acknowledge that their protocols for attaining the MS distinction encourage an almost otiose degree of precision in the nexus of “pairings,” which have started to create the equal and opposite reaction we recently encountered in a recent blog essay by Alder Yarrow, a writer and thinker whom I greatly admire.
In many ways I find myself aligned with him now. Wine and food pairing, taken to extremes, may not quite be “junk science” or “bad art” as he described the phenomenon, but the feverish intensity with which the task is approached seems a little manic. I have elsewhere critiqued (teased? Made fun of? Lambasted?) the whole nonsensical business of blind tasting as any sort of crux for “mastering” wine or wine service. Even if one attains virtuosity at this irrelevant little game, what then? Will you be pressed into service as a hostage negotiator? Boko Haram is holding 25 schoolgirls hostage and won’t release them unless you can successfully nail these five wines blind. How will this skill be used? Don’t mistake my meaning; I understand the theory. The necessary concentration required to identify wines tasted blind has – it is supposed – collateral benefits in making the luckless aspirant more precise in his understanding of wine. I guess. I rather think there’s more collateral damage than benefit in reducing wine to a specimen one needs to “master.” Will we remember, when we’ve put away the flash cards, that wine is actually a friend one needs to love?
So it stands to reason we’d witness a backlash, and that some of those sentiments would be driven by frustration. But I was troubled by some of the undertones in Yarrow’s generally reasonable arguments. Did any of his readers sniff a bit of populism in his rhetoric? At times I even thought “This will comfort all the anti-intellectuals,” which is actually a little appalling because the Alder Yarrow I know is an excellent thinker and a civil and decent spirit.
I’m not going to debate him at the (laudable) level of detail with which he made his case. Instead I’ll look at some of the keystones with which he structured his argument. I have my own case to make. And part of it entails a full-throated concurrence with one of his salient points: that “pairings” are bound to be futile because every element of the situation is mutable. No two plates of the same dish are identical. No two bottles of wine are identical. Wines taste different from different glasses. We ourselves are changelings; everything bears upon us, the weather, how rested we are, how hydrated we are (or are not), the time of day, and all this affects not only our moods, but our entire somatic being, including the physical properties of our palates.
But does that mean we should just surrender to anarchy? I happen to know Alder is an avid hiker – we love many of the same trails in the Dolomites – and I wonder whether anyone has said to him something I’ve heard more than once: “Don’t you sometimes want to just ditch the map and wander wherever looks enticing?” A nice, romantic question, right? Sounds like an angel, insisting I learn to “loosen up.” Well, sorry, but no. The map is what enables me to relax, because I’m free from the fear of getting lost. It is reassuring to know where we are!
Where food and wine are concerned, the question seems to be, how much “map” do we really need, in order to balance the spirit of fun with enough skill to avoid really crappy combinations of flavor? Because these do exist! And yes, of course we all have different palates, and yes, pyrazine yada yada and rotundone yada yada and we don’t all taste precisely the same things. But what do we do then? Throw up our hands and surrender to chaos? Baby, meet bath-water; you’re both going on a trip….
I think it was Einstein who said “Science should be as simple as possible, but no simpler,” and I think it can apply to this little food/wine gauntlet. Because I assert a kind of Hypocratic Oath for flavor-pairings – “First, don’t do anything ugly or discordant.” Can we agree even on this elemental point? The risk of just blasting away at what is, at the very least, a body of knowledge about how flavors work together is that we’ll have a lot of unpleasant times eating and drinking. So what can we strip it down to?
I would submit these few really primitive notions. I’ll start with the question of intensity and weight. If these are mismatched, then one element will dominate the other, to the detriment of the weaker one. I then examine the types of harmonies we’ve all experienced, harmonies of similarity and harmonies of contrast. For food and wine, the most crucial practice is to balance sweetness, because if the food is sweeter then the wine, say bye-bye to that wine’s fruit and even to its essential balance, since without fruit it risks tasting shrill. I have seen this happen literally hundreds of times in my life, and find this principle to be ironclad. (Curiously, if the wine is sweeter than the food, it won’t harm the food albeit the two won’t dance.)
A similar principle is to match acids. I find this marginally less categorical than to calibrate sweetnesses, but it can’t hurt and it’s worth taking into account.
Harmonies of contrast are well known. Salt and sweetness like each other – the Prosciutto and melon effect – and herbal flavors in food like “mineral” flavors in wine, especially white wine. The cliché might be poached salmon in a cool cucumber dill sauce. I’m keying off the dill, the dominant flavor, and looking for minerality to talk to it. Simple stuff but worth remembering. But when we come to synergy, the way grows more obscure. All of us know that protein lowers the impression of tannin; there’s a reason you like that fatty steak with your galumphing Cabernet. But many other synergies seem to arrive unbidden and unanticipated. And all we can do is leave the door unlocked so they can let themselves in.
Alder Yarrow says he’s never had the 2+2=5 moment with wine and food. I’m sad to read that, because it’s happened to me, and continues to occur a few times a year. Never when I’ve waited for it, but if I were truly flying blind I’m sure it would never happen at all. And when it happens it’s a sensual and even spiritual revelation – Who knew the world could do that? – which may be the reason so many lunge down the rabbit hole; we must be able to deliberately bring that about! But no, it doesn’t work that way.
But it also doesn’t work the other way. One thing I learned early on was that raw alium was homicidal to wine, especially white wine and especially delicate or subtle white wine. I also discovered that excessive garlic would hijack a (white) wine’s umami, so that the lingering attractive finish I’d been enjoying was pinned to the mat by garlic. To me it only makes sense to avoid the known horrors, to favor the reliably useful basic principles, and to leave the rest to the fates. After all, we want things to taste good together. We wouldn’t say “It doesn’t matter what-all flavors you shove onto the plate, it’s just food! Sheesh, what’s with the obsessing?” (Please tell me we wouldn’t….) Wine is just flavor in liquid form, one of the things we’re consuming at the table, and while I agree that it’s suffocating to ordinary pleasure to fixate on the minutae of “pairing” at some sub-atomic level, the inverse is perhaps even more dangerous. We need to learn to pay a decent degree of attention to these things and then forget them so we can talk to our friends. (Unless we have the types of friends who are enthralled with how a Meunier-based Champagne goes really well with coppery briny East Coast oysters, which none of us supposed but wow, what just happened?) I hope I can invite Alder over for dinner some day; I think we’d have fun, and I promise there wouldn’t be a quiz.